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This group of amendments also contains a number of minor and technical amendments, to ensure that the Bill works effectively and to provide consistency and clarity of language. They include amendments that
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add greater protection to common land, in response to concerns raised in the other place, and the deletion of a number of clauses in part 1 relating to private streets. Following the consideration of points raised in the other place, the Government accepted that those clauses were not needed and that removing them would improve the clarity and workability of the Bill.

As I mentioned earlier, economic circumstances have changed in a remarkable and dramatic way since the House last considered the Bill in March. The Homes and Communities Agency will provide the flexibility and the strength to cope with changing times, as we aim to increase the supply of housing and to regenerate our communities in a well-planned, well-designed and sustainably responsible way. The amendments improve on what was in the Bill, allowing the agency to work effectively and closely with local government partners and others. I commend them to the House.

Grant Shapps: I thank the Minister for taking on board some of the concerns that were raised in Committee and on Report. First, the design-and-build concept behind the Homes and Communities Agency is important. We had quite a long discussion about that in Committee. It is absolutely appropriate that the quality of house-build, rather than a simple goal of building X million homes by Y, should be a fundamental principle. Houses have to be built to a quality that is of use to their inhabitants.

I remember speaking in Committee about the concerns in my constituency about the 10,000 new houses being built, 2,000 of which have already been delivered, whose design quality sometimes lets the new inhabitants down dramatically. Some of the problems that we have already seen in those new communities have become clear. I am delighted that the Minister has taken on board some of those concerns and designed an entirely new objective for the Homes and Communities Agency—the so-called fourth objective—which turns out to be design and build. I welcome that development.

6.45 pm

Also to be welcomed is Lords amendment No. 2, which deals with provision for elderly and disabled people. Again, I remember the contributions that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made in Committee to a very good-natured discussion on the issue that, at the time, led to no great result. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done, but nothing was going to be added to the Bill to ensure that objective. I am therefore delighted that it has returned from the other place, a note having been made about design for the elderly and disabled. That is a crucial part of the now amended Bill that is to be welcomed.

The powers of the Homes and Communities Agency were the subject of discussion not just once or twice, but all the way through the previous stages of the Bill. The agency will clearly be a phenomenally powerful body, with the ability to take on powers from local authorities, to build, to provide planning permission to build, to become the landlord or the managing agent—in fact, to do everything. One wonders why we will even need local authorities or developers in the future if the Homes and Communities Agency ever exercises its powers in that manner.

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I am therefore pleased that there are some measures in the amendments that assist in at least reassuring the House that that is not the intention of the Bill. The Minister assured us in Committee that the Bill was not designed to create a super agency that would use those powers. However, no concessions were made at all in Committee, which suggested that that would be written into the Bill. I am therefore pleased that the Bill has come back from the other place with those amendments.

It is right that we should all be concerned not to have an agency out there with powers that overstep the mark so that in future, if not today, a chief executive and a Secretary of State or a Housing Minister—perhaps the Minister himself—might use them in a way counter-productive to local democracy. That is the point around which the greatest disagreements still revolve. It is clear to people on the ground that establishing a strong powerful agency, with the capacity, which the HCA still has under the Bill, to build against the wishes of local people and, if it so desires, to fail to take into account local concerns, will, albeit perhaps unintentionally, set the power of the agency against the power of local communities.

As the Minister knows, that has been the Opposition’s overriding concern throughout the passage of the Bill. If we are not careful, we are in danger of passing a Bill that provides too many centralised powers. Some of the amendments address some of those concerns, as did a meeting that I held last week with the new chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, Sir Bob Kerslake. He is clear that his remit should be to work in conjunction with local authorities and other bodies in providing housing.

Again, my concern is with what happens not today or over the next few years, but beyond that. The Bill is still too slanted towards the presumption that powers can be, if not necessarily exercised, then perhaps threatened under the clauses that remain, creating an imbalance between local authorities, other bodies and registered social landlords, and the Homes and Communities Agency. However, I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State must now specifically endorse decisions made by the Homes and Communities Agency, where powers are intended to be taken by the agency. That, too, is a welcome development.

There are simply too many amendments in the Bill—and even in this group—for me to be able to do them all justice. This brings us to the central concern behind the way in which the amendments have been tabled. The Minister might describe them as “minor” and “technical”, and in many cases he might be right, but certainly not in all. The Government have tabled 715 amendments to the Bill since Second Reading—

Mr. Iain Wright: Seven hundred and seventeen.

Grant Shapps: The Minister has kindly corrected me. That is an extraordinary number. Perhaps a couple of new ones have been added at the last minute, which I was unable to count. It is extraordinary that we should now be in the position of needing to approve 313 amendments—I invite the Minister to correct me if I am out by one or two—coming back from the Lords, many of which are included in this important first group dealing with the powers of the Homes and Communities Agency. Had there been more consensus
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on this matter at an earlier stage, we might have been able to avoid this late rush of 313 amendments from the other place.

I am pleased, however, that the Minister has referred today to giving way on the so-called list principle. Those of us who served on the Committee will remember that the answer to almost any point put to the Minister—no matter how practical or real the problem involved—was met by the simple objection, “We can’t add that to the Bill because there will be a list principle that will be ruined by adding a list of items.” Yet, as has already been mentioned, there is now a fourth objective for the Homes and Communities Agency, which further adds to the list. In fairness to the Minister, I am delighted that he has characteristically given way on that simple principle, and conceded that it is possible to improve a Bill by adding to a so-called list of items.

It is a pity, however, that many of those changes could not be made until the Bill reached the other place. I wonder why the Government had their conversion on the road to Damascus in the other place, and not in Committee in this House. Perhaps the Minister will explain why. Good arguments were being put forward from both sides in Committee, from housing experts on the Back Benches. Their arguments seemed perfectly erudite, yet they simply were not accepted by the Minister at the time. However, when they were put forward in the other place and by outside organisations, they suddenly became entirely acceptable. Had we listened to the convincing arguments put forward by hon. Members during the earlier stages of the Bill, we could have improved it much more quickly, but we are now having to consider an enormous number of amendments in a very short time. We should have debated them correctly in the right place and at the right time, and improved the Bill at an earlier stage. I ask the Minister to reflect on that experience.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I shall perhaps surprise the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) by saying that I agree with him in one important aspect. He referred to the surprising number of amendments to which we have been exposed since the Bill began its parliamentary passage some eight months ago, and I am afraid that this is one illustration of a theme that I have spoken about in other contexts—the increasing tendency for legislation to be produced in too much of a hurry and without sufficient preparation, so that it requires a great deal of amendment during its parliamentary passage. That is not a helpful trend, and I hope that in the years to come we will move away from that practice.

I thought it slightly odd, however, that the hon. Gentleman complained about that and then welcomed the fact that a number of changes were being made to the Bill. He cannot have it both ways. We are making a lot of changes to the Bill, and I believe that they have generally made a considerable improvement and are therefore welcome. As he will remember, many of them were introduced on Report in this House, before the Bill went to the Lords, so this is not simply a case of our receiving amendments at this late stage.

To return to first principles, I strongly welcome this part of the Bill and the establishment of the Homes and Communities Agency. At a time when there is widespread recognition of the importance of more effective action
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to achieve sustainable development and mixed developments involving the public, private and voluntary sectors—and of the need to ensure that we meet the very considerable housing needs that remain unmet, to which the Opposition have frequently referred—obviously we should welcome the creation of an agency with significant powers to help to deliver the homes that are needed. It was notable that the interventions from the Liberal Democrats were all about preventing development. That was a telling indication that their instinct is leading them not to meet housing needs but to prevent housing and development that would meet those needs.

Lembit Öpik: Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman that I love appropriate development. Our concern is that there needs to be appropriate devolution of the decision making behind that development. Our questions are therefore not so much about preventing development as about ensuring that local authorities are genuine partners in the process, rather than junior partners subjugated to an all-powerful HCA.

Mr. Raynsford: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s view that local authorities should be genuine partners, and it is quite clear that that is exactly what the HCA, under the leadership of Sir Bob Kerslake, wishes to achieve. He has been mentioned on several occasions today, and he has impressed almost everyone who has come into contact with him since he was appointed. He is clearly committed to the two goals that we should all share: to take more effective action to meet housing and regeneration needs, and to do so in a way that is inclusive and involves proper partnerships with local authorities, housing associations and the private sector. I wish him every success in his daunting task as chief executive of the new agency.

I am pleased that the agency is coming into existence, and that a number of potential defects in the legislation have been addressed. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) for the specific amendment in response to my concerns about the lack of a level playing field in respect of low-cost home ownership development. With that, I welcome this group of amendments and hope that they will be endorsed by the House.

Lembit Öpik: There can be no more heart-warming sight than the admission by a Government Minister of his own human fallibility. In making such an admission, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) has shown a humble divinity rarely observed at the ballot box—I mean the Dispatch Box. I always refer to it as the ballot box; I shall be in trouble for that.

We all know that the Minister does not portray himself as all-powerful, but concern has been consistently expressed on the Opposition Benches that the Homes and Communities Agency could appear all-powerful from below, at local authority level. For that reason, this group of amendments is encouraging in two ways. First, it explicitly increases the responsibility of the HCA to consult in particular ways. Secondly, it requires precise specification by the Secretary of State of the remit in a number of situations. We were calling for those provisions in Committee, but the Minister seemed somewhat resistant to them at the time. Let us not be
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churlish, however, because he has now taken them on board after some fairly tough negotiating in the other place. A large number of the votes went the way they did despite, rather than because of, the Government’s willingness to accept the proposals put forward at the time. Nevertheless, the fact that this group of amendments has been embraced by the Minister shows that the iterative process—which I think works pretty well if people are genuinely focused on a good outcome—has once again served us well.

The fact that there are 770 new amendments—

Mr. Wright: Seven hundred and seventeen.

Lembit Öpik: The fact that there are 717 amendments, as the Minister bragged before, means that there is more than one for every day between now and the next general election. We could therefore have a Homes and Communities Agency advent calendar with an amendment behind every door, and on the final day—the day of the election—we could have the jolly face of the Minister to lift our spirits as we go to vote. All kinds of possibilities reside there— [Interruption]—especially if one has a vivid imagination.

If the legislation is based on principles, let me deal with a principle that concerns what we do in this Chamber, where we increasingly talk about principles, but insert detail. I realise that a number of amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats—and, indeed, the Conservatives—have been quite detailed, so I make this admonition to us all: perhaps we should be a bit more courageous in approaching the sort of issues that these amendments are designed to clarify and reduce the body of legislation we put forward by increasing our reliance on guidelines rather than on specific edicts. If we did so, the legislative process would be more transparent and we could make the Bill more flexible and avoid unintended consequences, which, with the best will in the world, this extensive piece of legislation is likely to bring.

7 pm

I praise the obvious capabilities of the first chief executive, Bob Kerslake, but I also believe that it is a bit dangerous to rely entirely on the abilities of the first person appointed to a job. One should not plan legislation on the basis of the best person likely to do the job, but on the basis of the worst case scenario. That is not to be cynical; it is simply to protect the public from things going wrong as a result of human error. For that reason, although I have no doubt that we will have an excellent first chief executive, I am slightly worried that we have not thought sufficiently about the worst case scenarios, as we discussed them in Committee. Nevertheless, the amendments go a long way towards improving the situation. I modestly point out that no fewer than 24 Government amendments in this group are a direct result of the sage work of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place, who were persuasive in convincing Ministers of the merit of our case—or, where that failed, fortunate in winning the vote.

I want to make three main points. The first is about the permitted purposes and types of development in the HCA remit. Lords amendments Nos. 6, 7, 16 and 17 are relevant and help a great deal to resolve issues previously discussed as a matter of concern. I am also encouraged by amendment No. 47, which will help to create a level
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playing field. It will make it difficult for the HCA to alter the terms of reference in varying or revoking a determination; and it will not be able to override the provisions relating to the events and principles according to which the exercise of its powers should be predetermined. That is a really important change, because it puts to rest one of the criticisms often made of such legislation, allowing consistency from the point at which the determination is made right through to the point at which it is acted on.

The most important issues in the group are raised by Lords amendments Nos. 39, 40, and 42 to 46, which clarify what the authority can do in terms of entering into agreements with providers of social housing, including arrangements for sharing equity uplift between the authority and the provider. Again, we discussed the matter at some length in Committee, and I recall being concerned that the phrasing did not necessarily mean that the authority’s remit would be conducive to improving the attractiveness and accessibility of shared equity schemes. We all think that shared equity schemes provide a sensible way forward, offering a very important additional rung in the housing ladder. I believe that in this area, the Government have provided something that is genuinely helpful; I give great credit to the Minister for not seeking to revoke a provision that we put him under some pressure to agree to.

Finally, I agree with the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) that there is much in this group of amendments to debate, but that it is not plausible for us to detain the House unduly by examining every amendment in detail. I have been putting forward a brush-stroke analysis of the amendments, but the mood music is right. The Minister has taken into account a number of our concerns. Let us hope that we have not over-regulated in our efforts to make the authority a bit more receptive to the importance of a genuine partnership working environment with local authorities and other providers of housing.

Andrew Mackinlay: I want to deal briefly with some amendments in the group. I particularly welcome the amendments that introduce—for the first time, I believe—the duty on authorities to have regard for “good design”. We have needed that for a very long time. So many housing developments are, at best, bland; and some are the product of obviously lazy initiatives by the developer, whether it be a private company or a statutory body. All too often, the design comes off a shelf—a shelf on which design has not been reviewed for many a year. I believe that it is possible at minimal cost to unlock the talent among people capable of designing quality housing. Housing can be aesthetically pleasing and it is extremely important to be aware of it. Even in hitherto poor, working-class areas, original design can make a great statement of confidence for the future. Local communities are interested in that, as it is one aspect of building a sense of community, which Government Departments are also trying to promote. I do not wish to exaggerate, but this is important.

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